I still remember years ago asking Dr. Bucky Strickland what he thought would be the next area of doctrinal contention in Baptist life. I was actually surprised at his response, he said that he thought it would prove to be over the issue of penal substitution. At the heart of penal substitution is Christ appeasing the wrath of God by taking the place of sinners, and taking upon himself the penalty of sin which is death and separation from God.
Some would like to substitute in place of this biblical understanding of divine propitiation an idea of expiation, all the while abandoning the biblical teaching on God’s wrath. The most prominent promoter of this revised understanding of the cross was C.H. Dodd. Dodd sought to argue that whereas God’s love and mercy are personal attributes, his wrath and justice were not. Dodd taught that the Greek word hilaskomai, should be translated and understood as a canceling rather then being understood as appeasement, which was how the word was used in it’s original Greco-Roman context. While we do not deny expiation occurs as a result of the work of Christ, the Bible does speak clearly of the subsitutionary nature of Christ’s death on the cross. That central theme of substitution which is taught in the Bible and put forward in BFM II.B is completely done away with by the teaching of Christ’s death as being only expiatory in nature.
There has been debate over this very issue in the PCUSA as they attempted to revise the hymn, “In Christ Alone.” The large scale abandonment of the biblical teaching on the atonement in this denomination should come as a surprise to no one. The shock that comes from this controversy comes from a response by Dr. Bob Terry president of the Alabama Baptist, a Baptist newspaper. In his response Terry states the following:
George is exactly right. The Bible speaks clearly about the wrath of God and warns that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God (Ps. 90:11).
Yet there remains a question about whether God was an angry God at Golgotha whose wrath had to be appeased by the suffering of the innocent Jesus. Sometimes Christians carelessly make God out to be some kind of ogre whose angry wrath overflowed until the innocent Jesus suffered enough to calm Him down. It is the ultimate “good cop/bad cop” routine where God is against us but Jesus is for us.
Some popular theologies do hold that Jesus’ suffering appeased God’s wrath. That is not how I understand the Bible and that is why I do not sing the phrase “the wrath of God was satisfied” even though I love the song “In Christ Alone.”
I take the incarnation seriously when the Bible teaches “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). According to Scripture the One who died at Golgotha was One with the Father (John 10:30). The apostle Paul added, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19).
As I understand Scripture, Jesus opened a new window through which people could see what God is like. God has always been like Jesus and Jesus has always been like God. That is why Jesus said to the apostle Philip in John 14:8–11, “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father.”
After appearing to agree with Timothy George’s observation on the importance of having a proper understanding of God’s wrath, Dr. Terry puts forward a strawman argument against the idea of propitiation. God, the triune God, before all creation planned to redeem fallen Adam’s race through the substitution of Christ, and Dr. Terry likens that to good cop/bad cop. If Jesus was not taking upon himself God’s wrath against sin then why the prayer in the garden. Why the request that the cup, which in the Old Testament refers to the cup of God’s wrath, be taken away. Why the sweating of blood. Why the cry, ” My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” The Bible and history tell us that the early martyrs died with great joy and boldness. One cannot understand the agony Jesus underwent if one removes propitiation from the picture. Dr. Terry goes on to argue that Jesus provides us a window showing us who God is. This is true the God who had wrath toward sin and sinners in the Old Testament and who had planned before the foundation of the world to provide propitiation through the shed blood of his Son is clearly revealed in the incarnation of that Son. Revelation 6:16 speaks of the lamb’s wrath, Revelation 19 speaks of the lamb’s war against his enemies. Jesus wrath, God’s wrath, it is a personal wrath and our only hope is in the one who drank of the cup of God’s wrath so we don’t. If Christ has not appeased God’s wrath for us, then we will bear his wrath. Dr. Terry would do well read Romans 5 which clearly speaks of the propitiation of our sins provided for by Jesus death.